What do women want? A new study shows that heterosexual women might prefer masculine men -- but only when they are ovulating.
The study, which will be published in Psychological Bulletin on Feb. 24, revealed that women are most attracted to masculine men during this time frame, but they don’t really see them as long-term partners.
"Women sometimes get a bad rap for being fickle, but the changes they experience are not arbitrary," senior author Martie Haselton, a UCLA professor of psychology and communication studies, said in a press release. "Women experience intricately patterned preference shifts even though they might not serve any function in the present."
For the study, researchers reviewed published and unpublished studies on women’s preferences for mates and how they changed during their menstrual cycles.
Some of the research they considered showed that women who sniffed shirts worn by men who had different body and facial symmetry preferred more symmetrical men when they were ovulating during their menstrual cycle. Facial symmetry has long been associated with attractiveness in research.
Deeper voices, which may reflect more testosterone and masculinity, have also been shown to be more attractive for women.
The researchers found that during ovulation, women preferred men who were more masculine with stronger builds and facial features, but their desires didn’t cross over strongly on other days. The change in attitude during the time the woman was ovulating, though “small” to “medium” in change, was determined to be statistically significant, meaning it was not due to chance.
The studies were unable to shed light on which specific masculine features were most attractive.
The researchers hypothesized that this behavior could be a leftover evolutionary trait that would ensure women would get the best genetic material from a mate when they were most fertile. These offspring would be more likely to survive and contribute to the gene pool, they speculated. Even though this isn’t necessary in today's society, the instinct may have persisted.
The reason for the attitude shift during the other time frames could be explained by the fact that there are benefits to not partnering with a masculine male, even back then. Haselton explained that non-masculine men may be kinder, more reliable and resourceful, what she called “good dad” traits. This could outweigh the masculinity and strength of the “sexy dad.”
"Ancestral women would have benefited reproductively from selecting partners with characteristics indicating that they'd be good co-parents, such as being kind, as well as characteristics indicating that they possessed high genetic quality such as having masculine faces and bodies," Haselton said. "Women could have had the best of both worlds -- securing paternal investment from a long-term mate and high-genetic quality from affair partners -- but only if those affairs were timed at a point of high fertility within the cycle, and probably only if their affairs remained undiscovered."
Steve Gangastad, a professor of evolutionary development at the University of New Mexico who wasn't involved in the study, told USA Today that the research could shed light on women's shifting mate preferences.
"The emphasis has been on what about men women distinctively prefer closer to ovulation," Gangastad said. "There's been relatively little attention to what characteristics women might prefer when they are not fertile."
For women today, Haselton said they should keep the study’s findings in mind when searching for a potential date.
"If women understand the logic behind these shifts, it might better inform their sexual decision-making so that if they notice suddenly that they're attracted to the guy in the next cubicle at work, it doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have a great long-term partner," Haselton said. "They're just experiencing a fleeting echo from the past."
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